There’s a moment in the first episode of the Netflix series Salt Fat Acid Heat when an Italian baker in the Liguria region gently smooths olive oil over a rectangular lump of dough, his palms slowly sweeping up and down the future loaf of focaccia.
Then, he takes three fingers and lightly presses them into the dough, making little indentations into which he’ll later pour a heavily-salted brine. It is, as I tweeted after watching it, the most tender thing I’ve seen in my life. The pause he takes before each press feels just a millisecond too long, a millisecond that made me hold my own breath. It was almost sensual, knowing how much he cared about exactly how and where he placed his fingers.
Samin Nosrat, the Iranian-American presenter of Salt Fat Acid Heat, is just the sort of food hero you need when you want to learn about all that the world of eating has to offer. The four-part series – each episode named after salt, fat, acid or heat – is based on her book of the same name, which aims to explain why these four elements are the basis of good cooking. In the series, she journeys around the world visiting people whose work demonstrates why her theory is correct, and showing us in a kitchen (which seems to have two separate gas hobs, one of which is on an island, aka the dream) how to put it into practice.
The series is beautiful to look at – all lingering shots of dappled olive groves, aerial journeys over forests on tiny Japanese islands, wanders through vibrant food markets, sunny outdoor pesto-making lessons. There’s a sense of the unreal about it. Perhaps it’s because Samin travels so far away from Ireland that everything in it is going to feel unreal and exotic anyway, or because the stunning vistas are almost too stunning to comprehend.
But it never loses sight of reality at the same time. This is revealed to us through the big moments, like Samin’s expressive face as she eats something delicious (she eats lots of delicious things, lucky Samin, so we see this face a lot and I never tire of it). This isn’t playacting or putting-something-on-for-the-camera. She loves food, and she marvels at what people can do with things like mashed soybeans and fungus (let them ferment together in large jars until they become miso paste), or bits of a pig’s head (turn it into a salted meat), or thousands of black olives (pulse the globes into a thick paste, load this onto presses and press out golden-green spicy extra virgin olive oil).
But the reality is revealed through smaller moments too, like in the Salt episode when a friend of Samin’s called Jazmine samples a meal of short ribs (cooked in a sea of miso and soy sauce after spending hours smothered in salt in the fridge), green beans (flash-boiled in water as salty as the ocean), and rice (cooked with a ‘pinch’ of salt, ie a chef’s pinch, ie what looked like a tablespoon). First of all, Jazmine is standing up at the counter, which is probably for ease of filming but feels appropriate for when you’re so hungry you want to scoff the food wherever and whenever. But the telltale moment comes as she takes her first bite: a single grain of white rice falls out of her mouth. I felt a kinship with her at that moment. I’ve been that rice-falling-out-of-my-mouth–in-public soldier too. That this bit was left in the show warmed my heart.
I never thought about where salt comes from until I read a review of Samin’s book, which contained an extract from Salt Fat Acid Heat. ‘All salt comes from the ocean,’ was what it said, and as I read it – and this isn’t an exaggeration – I felt weepy. A salty tear felt like the only right reaction to realising how connected we are to everything, and how the vast, beautiful and frightening ocean brings us a condiment that we need to make meals that tingle our tastebuds. Ah, mother nature – you’re too much for us sentimentalists. No wonder our tears taste so good.
In the Salt episode we meet a soy sauce maker who claims he has no hand in how the sauce is made at all – even though he visits the dark salty pools every day, listening to the pop of fermentation bubbles, he says the process is all down to one thing: microorganisms. He shows us how food is about alchemy and science, processes we might not always understand. And maybe you don’t want to think about how yeast makes your bread rise as you saw through a loaf of rye bread. Or maybe that’s what makes the loaf so special to you.
Salt Fat Acid Heat isn’t always an easy watch for me – as a squeamish vegetarian I look away when it comes to the bits where beautiful hefty pigs are carved up or glassy-eyed fish have their heads sliced off. But I can recognise how carefully almost all parts of these animals are used, even if I wouldn’t partake in the resulting salami or prosciutto myself.
My personal take on food reminds me that food can be political, it can be polarising, it can be a source of worry and stress. Food can be associated with weight, with ‘good’ eating and ‘clean’ eating and calories and ways of control. I’m no stranger to at times wanting to hate this thing that has seemed to have a strange power to change my body. As I’ve gotten older, and been exposed to more ways of thinking about food and weight, ways that don’t hold people’s weight against a good/bad binary, that don’t judge people by good/bad according to their appearance or eating habits, it’s meant learning to see food in a more relaxed light. It has shown me that like food, bodies are better when they come in all their varying shapes, sizes and presentations. We are all unique tasty snacks.
Salt Fat Acid Heat takes me away from food as good/bad in relation to body image, and back to what feels best: food in relation to how good it can make me feel. It reminds me of how privileged I am to have choice around food and access to food, and to not take that for granted.
The show makes me think of how much I love sitting with friends in M&L, eating hot peppery mapo tofu and the saltiest, garlickiest, most delicious green beans I’ve ever tasted in my life.
It makes me think of my granny’s apple sponge, with the tender sponge atop a bed of melt-in-the-mouth apple. Of a slice of crisp and golden white toast in the evening when I’m home from work. Of salty too-hot chipper chips that burn my tongue. Of tearing open a foil bag of crisps in the pub, laying it out for multiple hands to dive into. Of chocolate, obviously.
It makes me remember realising earlier this year that I had a regular go-to family meal, when I made roasted vegetables with pasta and pesto in my mum’s house in the days after my granny passed away. A meal we were all familiar with, a meal to bring us together in a time of sadness, a meal to remember someone by, a meal that left garlic on our breaths in a way that made us laugh when we thought of greeting sympathisers. A meal that I’ve made so many times that to my mum it’s become ‘Aoife’s pasta’. A meal that I don’t mind people tiring of. And did I mention it’s loaded with garlic? The best kind of meal.
All pics by me on 35mm. Watch Salt Fat Acid Heat here.